Warning: Spoiler Alert. Sketchy bits of the story are herein revealed.
I’m still feeling a little dazed and pummeled from last night’s screening of Avatar, for a fairly broad variety of reasons. It’s partly from the eye-ravishing overall visuals; partly from the undeniably cool (but almost needlessly excessive) excursion into the realms of theatrical 3-D; partly from how dizzyingly quickly the damn-near three hour movie seemed to fly by; partly from all the head-wobbling stuff that made little or no sense (but still didn’t seem to stall the works all that much); and partly from James Cameron’s balls continually hitting me in the face. Yes, I will elaborate.
Even when you’ve already got a showoff bandolier of industry shaping blockbusters slung across your directorial chest, it takes some mighty big brass clankers to even talk about your newest cinematic venture the way Cameron talks about Avatar. This is, he reminds us, the movie he would have made in the late 90s…but for the woeful state of film-making tech at the time, which had yet to catch up to the visions of “synthetic” (computer-generated) actors dancing in James Cameron’s head.
That’s big, blustery, important sounding talk all right… the digital hell of it is, Mr. Cameron apparently was, and is, absolutely right: There’s just no way this jaw-droppingly immersive, blue-skinned baby would have flown even four years ago, let alone ten (and now that it’s here, let’s all pause to watch the virtual representation of James Cameron happily driving the first of what will certainly be a finite number of nails into the coffin of our quaint present day notion of real (flesh and blood)"’movie stars." But that’s another article entirely).
Avatar gives us ex-Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), paralyzed from the waist down, a relatively soft-spoken jarhead whose Semper is still so Fi that he resolutely rolls into the next, quasi-military phase of his tumultuous life in a wheelchair (into a soldiered-up base camp on an alien planet four light-years from Earth, no less). He’s been selected by the ‘RDA’—the blandly-ominous Resources Development Agency, a sort of heavily-armed NGO from Hell, except it’s from, y’know, us — for the so-named Avatar program, on an Earth-sized moon orbiting an Alpha Centauri gas giant; the world in question is called Pandora, and among its abundant, exotic (and often dangerous) indigenous flora and fauna are the more or less humanoid Na’vi (a race of sentient, 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned, tribal warrior/hunter tree-hugger types who soon — collectively and quite unsubtly — function as the film’s thematic stand-ins for any third, fourth or fifth world group of people in history who ever had their asses handed to them by a Big Old Mean More-Technologically-Advanced Superpower.)
The titular Avatars are "shell" Na’vi bodies — genetically cooked up from a gumbo of human and Na’vi DNA — suited to Pandora’s environment, and meant to be remotely ‘piloted’ by human Avatar Program candidates (they’re also intended to facilitate clandestine human infiltration of the Na’vi society, although the Na’vi seem largely hip to the ruse from the outset). Seems the extremely nature conscious Na’vi — who worship an all-life-interconnected Gaian deity called Eyra — happen to be sitting on a massive deposit of insanely precious ‘Unobtanium’ (they actually call the unspecified resource by this name throughout the film)… and the greedy, gun-packing humans want the harmonious, blue-skinned savages off their precious land, pronto (Again: James Cameron 1, Subtlety 0).
Although Jake Sully starts his Avatar Program mission among the Na’vi as a disguised infiltrator in a remotely-controlled body, he soon becomes attached to a willful Na’vi female warrior (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek‘s Lt. Uhura)… and shortly thereafter begins to question his mission, and in fact just which world he wants to belong to. Sit tight, moviegoers. At the end of the filmmaking equation, James still knows what gets your blood pumping. Soon you’ll have the rainforest-razing, beeping oversized military bulldozers, the gunship-mounted rocket-pods, the bipedal ‘mechs,’ the bows and arrows, the flying four-eyed dragons and all the tense, epic, lopsided, asymmetrical warfare you can eat.
Any half-aware viewers who see Avatar will instantly be able to pinpoint the One Influential Movie it most strongly echoes… and they’ll all be wrong. Or perhaps the issue is that they’ll all be right. Avatar takes such a gargantuan, multilayered bite out of the entire cinematic multiverse that it’s hard not to find some high profile film that you can closely compare its signature themes and directorial riffs to (and half of the films that most readily come to mind will probably be previous Cameron films). The cocksure, scuffed-hardware, absolutely perfect military deadpanisms nestle comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the most corny, pat lines of dialogue; characters that were templates four movies ago nevertheless seem like comfortable oases between some of the more arid stretches of storytelling. It’s True Titanic Lies of Aliens one minute, and Terminators in the Judgment Day Abyss the next and… I don’t know… maybe Dances With Na’vi both before and after that. Those badass, 22nd-century swivel-rotor gunships look like the coolest parts of Aliens and sound exactly like the nastiest parts of Vietnam; and you bet your ass it’s on purpose.
I’ve left off detailing the much-ado-about-seemingly-everything visuals up to this point mostly as a tribute to Cameron’s power to draw us in. If this isn’t the most thorough, textured, exhaustive onscreen world ever presented, I’ll eat our current one. Pandora’s elaborate natural motifs and chains of wildlife—from the tiny spiral wings of insects that seem lifted from one of Da Vinci’s more fever-induced sketchbooks to the medium sized spirals of retracting flora to the massive-scale twists of a towering baobabesque tree the size of a mountain combine with fluid and utterly convincing stereoscopic animation that’s so good that…. well, that one can quickly stop paying undue attention to it. The same goes, thankfully, for the Na’vi characters. They’re blue, they move smoothly enough, they look kind of like Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver — and now we can get on with enjoying this epic if occasionally-goofy movie, yes?
Even as it clips along, Avatar does throw a lot of goofy stuff in our faces, and is better labeled ‘science fantasy’ than as proper ‘science fiction’: The justification of those majestic, mystical ‘floating mountains’ that hover in Pandora’s sky, like something from the cover of a 70s rock album? Um… it’s something to do with a ‘flux matrix,’ and even though the mountains float, the waterfalls streaming off them still plummet straight down, and rotor gunships still have to battle gravity, and… well, the flux matrix screws up human targeting computers, so that’s handy, innit? The struggle of primitive, bow toting natives against bipedal military "mechs" is dramatic as hell against that soaring score… so you’re going to want to let some of the combat-physics slide… cool? And just why we should feel any dramatic anxiety about our hero tooling around in a remote body that can apparently be shuffled off at will with no harm to the ‘pilot,’ if things start getting dicey on the native front? All I’m saying is… don’t think about any of it too much. Just let James Cameron tell a ripping, gripping, emotional, analogous tale of man’s better angel — spiritual nature — as it battles his base demon — greedy mortal coil. And marvel at just how much of this movie’s staggering world was conjured from thin digital air; and imagine where this kind of increasingly-unfettered dream-conjuring will take us in another year, or five, or ten.
And one other thing: Before it came to mean ‘a digital representation,’ or ‘a virtual presence,’ the term avatar referred to a descent to our earthly plane from the unknown realms above.